Even before Jodie Whittaker became the new (and first female!) Doctor, ‘Doctor Who’ was pushing boundaries.
Doctor Who has always celebrated life in all forms — how could it not, when its hero has two hearts? — but Steven Moffat’s last season, starring Peter Capaldi (the Doctor) and Pearl Mackie (Bill Potts), does more than diversify its cast. Among the issues under scrutiny in Doctor Who season 10 were racism, homophobia, sexism, whitewashing and more. Below are the top 10 moments the last season got progressive, real and relevant.
1. Heather and Bill’s love story in “The Pilot”
Bill Potts is spectacular: working-class, grounded, inquisitive. Furthermore, she’s the Doctor’s first 21st-century gay companion. In her debut, her sexuality is, delightfully, neither subdued nor sensationalized: it just is. Bill crushes on a classmate, Heather, who shortly afterward is absorbed by an alien disguising itself as a puddle (this is Doctor Who, after all). Bill and the Doctor flee, assuming it wants to kill them — only to learn alien-Heather remembers human-Heather’s feelings for Bill and is trying to invite Bill to come with her.
The show never congratulates itself for being “inclusive” in making the love story between women. This normalized treatment of Bill’s sexuality differs from that of Doctor Who’s other gay characters: Jenny and Vastra, an interspecies (Vastra is a lizard woman) gay couple; Jack Harkness, a pansexual man from the 22nd century; and River Song, the Doctor’s bisexual wife from the future, are all precursors for non-straightness on the show, but none of their characters are allowed to just be people from contemporary Earth. Bill’s sexuality is special — and ultimately more progressive — because it’s never exaggerated.
2. The Doctor literally punching racism in the face during “Thin Ice”
When Bill and the Doctor arrive in 1814 London Bill says, “Bit more Black than they show in the movies,” which is a great jab at history’s tendency to whitewash.
Better still is the moment the duo confront the villain (whom they suspect is an alien) behind this episode’s trouble. “Who let this creature in here?” the baddie cries, pointing to Bill. “On your feet, girl, in the presence of your betters!” The Doctor taps his shoulder and, when he turns, punches his face. “He’s human,” says the Doctor, which is both sobering — only humans can be so convincingly racist — and a good reminder how to treat racism when we see it.
3. The fight against the suits (aka, the ultimate capitalists who sell air to astronauts) in “Oxygen”
Bill, Nardole and the Doctor visit a space station where every breath costs. The oxygen company decides it’s too expensive to supply air to workers. To survive, the Doctor must speak a language the suits understand: if they die, the spaceship explodes (which would cost lots of money). “A moment ago we were too expensive to live,” he says. “Now we’re too expensive to die.” This is a hard, unflinching look at the dangerous future awaiting megacapitalism — a system that values money over human life.
4. The warnings against propaganda and “fake news centers” in “The Lie of the Land”
Alien Monks maintain control of the planet by putting out false media stories suggesting an alternative history of the world. It’s not just science fiction; it’s much of the world’s current political reality. The Monks use commercials and made-up facts (broadcasting from a pyramid the Doctor literally calls a “fake news center”) to brainwash the population. Those who resist are immediately apprehended and stamped out. It’s a chilling look at the importance of distinguishing reality from propaganda, and the dangers of fascism disguised as peace.
5. Bill’s mom saving Earth in “The Lie of the Land”
In the climax, to override the Monks’ fake news, an image of Bill’s mom is broadcast to the world, replacing the Monks’ lies. This moment is powerful and cheer-worthy because Bill and her mother manage to accomplish what even the Doctor couldn’t. Which means this scene is literally women of color saving the world where the white man failed. Booyah.
6. The Ice Warriors fighting white colonialism on Mars in “Empress of Mars”
This episode contains commentary on the subjugation of indigenous people and the ickiness of white oppression (the Ice Warrior serving the British army is named Friday after the native man whom Robinson Crusoe finds on “his” island and “civilizes”/indentures). The army has claimed Mars as “part of the empire.” When she wakes, the Empress of Mars leads a resistance to take back her planet from the white dudes — and wins.
7. All of the soldiers in the Ninth Legion shrugging when Bill tells them she’s not hetero in “Eaters of the Light”
When Bill tells the Romans — who are hitting on her — she’s a lesbian, their response isn’t what she’d expected: What they find odd about her revelation isn’t that she likes women; it’s that she’s interested in only one gender. Lucius says, “I’m just ordinary,” explaining he likes men and women. Bill says, “Well, isn’t this all very modern?” Lucius finds it “really sweet” that she’s so “restricted” in her sexuality. It subverts a lot of stereotypes about what “normal” sexuality is. It’s refreshing to see people accepting non-hetero sexualities in all its forms.
8. The Picts and Romans working together in “Eaters of the Light”
This message of overcoming differences and working together is timely and touching. The Romans and Picts begin as enemies on the battlefield and beyond, but manage to set that aside and work as a team to defeat a dangerous alien. This may be a trope we’ve seen before (and it’s not exactly historically accurate), but in our times of escalating racial tension and signs of mistrust of diversity, seeing portrayals of tolerance and teamwork is a much-needed reminder that we’re better together.
9. The Time Lords’ advanced understanding of gender fluidity in “World Enough and Time”
Perhaps no moment is more progressive than Bill and the Doctor’s conversation about the Master/Missy. “She was my man-crush,” he says. “I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too.” And when Bill questions his “flexibility” on “the man-woman thing,” he says his is the “most civilized civilization in the universe” and is “billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” Did anyone else want to stand and cheer? It’s a good reminder to us petty humans to continue breaking gender constructs: even the Time Lords are gender-fluid!
10. The Doctor saying he hopes the future will be “all girl” in the finale, “The Doctor Falls”
My favorite moment in Doctor Who is when Cyberman Bill gives the Master an order and the Doctor tells him to “do as she says.” “She says?” he repeats. “Is the future gonna be all girl?” (This referring also to Missy, who is the female regeneration after his.) “We can only hope,” says the Doctor. Turns out this moment was heavily foreshadowing Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor. And though Capaldi never disappoints, I cannot wait to see where Whittaker goes!